scorecardThe Zepto Boys: Competition that Amazon never saw coming
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The Zepto Boys: Competition that Amazon never saw coming

The Zepto Boys: Competition that Amazon never saw coming
Business10 min read
  • One year old quick commerce player Zepto is making Amazon and Flipkart look like legacy companies with delivery times of more than a day.
  • Analysts believe that Amazon in India has a weaker value proposition in 'New' commerce, where Zepto & Meesho dominate.
  • Zepto is looking to grab market share from Amazon in multiple categories it dominates.
When Steve Jobs delivered his commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005, never would he have imagined that 15 years later two 17-year old boys would follow his footsteps and opt out of the coveted computer science programme at the same college to pursue their entrepreneurial dream. Aadit Palicha and Kaivalya Vohra were crazy enough to believe in 2020 they could transform the online grocery delivery market in 2020 and they actually did it with Zepto, a quick commerce player that has created a new paradigm in online commerce. Valued at $900 mn, newbie Zepto is now challenging the Big Tech players on delivery time and formats.

Despite building a soonicorn in less than a year, Palicha is almost always expecting to be dissed for being that “idiot kid.” He starts the interview by saying: “I have come to a point where I like it when people say something is bonkers, then I take particular interest in it. I was laughed at during interviews when I wanted to hire senior people. I used to care because I was young, but I got hammered so many times that I stopped caring.”

The story of Vohra and Palicha is as crazy it sounds – a couple of kids who started out to solve the problem of grocery delivery at the peak of the pandemic and ended up convincing angel investors and venture capital firms to bet $360 mn on their “crazy” idea. Welcome to the fantasy world of startups, where ideas rule the roost and age is just a number.

In less than a year, Zepto is making Amazon and Flipkart look like legacy companies with delivery times of a day or more. Online commerce was born in the desktop era and while it has evolved in the last few years, it continues to deliver at the same pace as it did years ago, giving an opportunity to new commerce players like Zepto to solve problems with better formats and faster fulfillment.

On-demand commerce is the latest to disrupt the online cart in India, dominated largely by the big players. A report by global investment bank Bernstein says that even though India is Amazon’s biggest and fastest growing overseas market: “It also faces immense competitive pressure in fast growing categories, a weaker value proposition in 'New' commerce, limited traction in tier 2/3 cities, and an unfavorable regulatory environment for outsiders.”

The pandemic has helped germinate disruptive ideas and newbies are taking the game several notches higher by doing what nobody ever imagined – taking e-commerce beyond the big cities and delivery of fresh and groceries within minutes.

Zepto is not content being a soonicorn, with an eye on profitability the Q-commerce player is already experimenting with private labels in food, high-margin categories like personal care and 24/7 deliveries of hot snacks and hot beverages. Confident of where the company is going, Palicha, who is the CEO, says the company is on track to clock one million orders a day with annualised sales of $1 bn by October 2023.

Refusing to call it the next Amazon, Suvir Sujan, Co-founder and Managing Director of Nexus Venture Partners, says, “On demand commerce is a new paradigm in online delivery. I would love to say it is the next Amazon, but let’s first add more categories and get customers to come back for more. But what is more than groceries, time will tell.”

The Early Days of Zepto

At the headquarters of Zepto in suburban Mumbai, Palicha warmly greets his guests with a smile and Diet Coke from his mini refrigerator. There’s no nervous stammering, as one would expect from a high school graduate. Clearly two years is long enough time for a teenager to “grow up” and Palicha has come a long way from the days when he wore a green tee with Kirana Kart splayed all over it to deliver groceries to families in Mumbai’s suburban neighbourhood called Sher-e-Punjab.

The journey of these two college dropouts began at the start of the pandemic when they decided to take a year out of Stanford and give their entrepreneurial dream a chance.

The first battle was to come back to India from Dubai, where they both did their schooling at Gems World Academy. Jumping on to the Vande Bharat programme rolled out by the government to bring Indians back home during the pandemic, Vohra and Palicha boarded their flight back to Mumbai with a suitcase full of start-up ideas. Upon landing they decided to shack-up at Vohra’s family-run bed and breakfast in Andheri East as nobody wanted to rent an apartment to two teenage boys.

In the early days, they picked up groceries from kirana stores and delivered them to their customers’ doorstep, which helped them understand route planning, time taken to deliver and order fulfillment issues. The biggest lesson, however, was that they could not make money by running errands. It was at this time that they realised that they had to own the entire fulfillment process, if they wanted to build a profitable business. Picking up groceries from kirana stores and delivering them would not yield them the requisite margins. Those were the early days and they started clocking 2000 orders a day through WhatsApp groups and the early rendition of their app called KiranaKart.

The Birth of Zepto

The model of quick commerce soon started taking shape in their heads, as their retention metrics showed that deliveries within a 1.8 km radius reached within minutes and that helped them retain customers. The other pain point that customers had was incorrect items in the cart. Vohra and Palicha started applying their minds on solving these problems to improve retention.

Explains Palicha, “We had a model where we were experimenting with hyper local delivery and that got us 2000 orders a week. Kaivalya and I were delivering ourselves in the beginning. There was confusion over orders and erratic delivery timelines was an issue. Our first learning was if we had a lot of SKUs then it would help.” The second issue the duo encountered was around quality. “We looked at cohorts and found delivery time of over an hour was an issue,” adds Palicha.

By this time, they were encouraged by friends to apply to YCombinator and once they got through the programme, they had the confidence they needed to take the plunge. Two years ago YCom gave the two boys $125,000 and some other angel investors put in the rest. They hit the sweet spot when they cut delivery time to below 20 minutes. “Customers started interacting frequently when we delivered in less time,” explains Palicha. That’s when they decided to scale.

Nexus Partners Boards The Bus

Having worked on the early iterations of the app and having learned from their mistakes, Palicha and Vohra set out to attract the bigger investors for their startup. Armed with their learnings and coaching from YCombinator, the duo were ready to face a proper venture capital firm with their own unique quick commerce proposition.

Recalling their early days, Kaivalya Vohra, who is the CTO of Zepto, says: “We decided to drop out of Stanford and work on a startup that would solve a consumer problem. We decided to build an app in 2020 called KiranaKart to deliver groceries from local stores to consumers. That’s where we got our early learning from.”

Globally, quick commerce is an established business but the focus is largely consumer categories like ice, cigarettes and alcohol that typically people tend to order from Q-Commerce players. The need for fresh produce is met by organized retail players in developed markets with a store being present in every block almost. In India, however, both these markets are fragmented and quality is an issue.

So when Suvir Sujan of Nexus Venture Partners told Palicha that their model of kirana store deliveries would not work, Palicha agreed. Recalls Sujan, “He recognised what was not working and was assessing it to change the model. When I talked about building different layers of the business, he was able to articulate it very well. They had the technology chops and also had the maturity to know that they would need a senior team to build the business.”

Within days of receiving funding from Nexus, Palicha started interviewing senior professionals to build the team. Few wanted to work for a company that did not even have a name and was led by a 19-year old. Eventually, the team that Palicha has built is like him, people who are driven by the passion to solve problems and disrupt existing models.

Says Amritanshu Nanda, the chief marketing officer of Zepto, “What excited me was the vision and passion of the two founders and the massive disruption we were aiming to create in the fresh and grocery segment by reducing delivery to under 30 minutes from one day. My first conversation with them ended at 11 pm at night and soon after i walked out and called family and discussed with them.” It helped that Nanda has always worked for start-ups and quirky founders since 2008.

The Business Of Quick Commerce
Quick commerce is more about using technology to solve problems rather than just cutting time to deliver the goods. A visit to Zepto’s dark store in Andheri East helps understand the business model better. Palicha says that the early days taught them how to delight customers. He explains: “We embodied this product and we felt it would be great. When we saw customers getting delighted, we felt it would be big. We became the product in a sense.”

Zepto’s dark store in Andheri East resembles the trading floors of stock exchanges of yester years, where the outcry system was prevalent for buying and selling shares. At the entrance, packers awaiting their orders to be assigned to them stand, while at the other end are delivery partners who are waiting to pick up the deliveries assigned to them. Each time an order is assigned, a bell tolls and during peak demand it tolls endlessly. A big screen shows order numbers and time taken by each packer to finish packing the orders. As soon as an order is placed, packers are assigned on their handheld devices, which they pack in 76 seconds.

Placing of products is an important factor, and since bread, eggs and poultry products are high demand categories they are placed right at the entrance. The handheld device reads the inventory each time a product flies off the shelf, so that the warehouse knows what needs to be replenished.

Clearly, there’s a science behind delivering in 20 minutes and it only begins with route planning. In order to stock products that customers typically order, it is important to stock just enough products for which it is necessary to be able to predict demand. Sujan explains, “A lot of data analysis is required to predict demand in a hyperlocal environment. This data has to be fed back to the inventory management systems to ensure a high inventory turn. The whole value chain is important and for that demand prediction is important.”

The dark stores are compact as the inventory velocity is high. Palicha and his team refuse to spell out the exact number of dark stores they have across India at the moment.

Once Nexus was on board, putting the plan in place was easier and both Palicha and Vohra got down to hiring key talent, which entailed getting the best minds on board. Since delivering groceries was not profitable, they had to put in place the best supply chain experts to begin with.

But hiring wasn’t easy as few senior professionals wanted to work for an 18 year old kid. Recalls Palicha, “When we told people what we wanted to build, people told us we had lost it. You can never deliver between 10- 20 minutes. If it was possible then why had nobody done it.” The first couple of months in early to mid 2021 was spent hiring the right talent.

Zepto sources its entire fresh category from farmers and consumer products from companies. It is experimenting with high value food items like dry fruits and private labels.

The Road Ahead
Having cracked the delivery of groceries and fresh produce in the on-demand commerce space, Zepto will look at applying the model to multiple other categories that have traditionally been dominated by the likes of Amazon, which include pharmacy, fashion accessories, cafe, electronics and personal care. The company is looking to take market share from Amazon in multiple categories it dominates. All these categories can be delivered in much less time with assurance of quality with easy returns. Can the newbie build the same experience in multiple categories? Answers Palicha: “KV and I have the ambition to create the next generation of e-commerce in urban India.” Clearly, this story is far from over.

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